Artists - Byron Morris
"When I was maybe five years old, an indelible impression was made on me forever about music, and especially about this music we call jazz."
Photo credit: Betty Morris
Byron Morris, the unique and deeply spirited saxophonist talks to
Seymour Nurse at The Bottom End about his inspiring career, and legacy of the band "Unity", that gave us the amazing "Kitty Bey."
Seymour Nurse: You were connected to music from a very early age, through your father James William "Jim Billy" Morris who was a gifted saxophonist. In what way did he inspire you to play the saxophone?
Byron Morris: My father and my paternal grandmother; Mrs. Mattie V. Morris, who played the violin, piano and sang, they had much to do with my becoming a musician. When I was coming-up in the 1940's, 50's, ages 7 through 18, being a musician was a great thing in my community in Roanoke, Virginia, where I was born.
There were parades during the various holiday, community, and school activities. The sounds of drums, trumpets, trombones, woodwinds, etc., were very exciting for a young boy like me and many others. We would run to the sound of the band music, to see & hear the band marching by was very exhilarating for us.
I took Bb clarinet lessons (at 10 years old) with Mr. Bernard "Bernie" Whitman, he owned a wood & brass wind repair shop, gave lessons on the wood & brass winds, and played Bb clarinet in the Roanoke Symphony, and played jazz on the tenor sax in a jazz group. My Dad played tenor & alto sax in "Aristocrats band", and his musician friends,
and also my friends would come by the house to listen to his record collection.
Some of the musicians would come and play the big upright piano in my grandmothers' living room; which was the same piano that Don Pullen and the legendary pianist Clyde "Fats" Wright, along with many others would play during that time period.
My Dad had musician's friends in the various travelling bands during that time period (1950's).
In Basie' Band there were Bill Graham (alto sax), Marshal Royal (alto sax), and "Wild Bill" Davis (organist). And in Duke Ellington's band there was Jimmy Hamilton (tenor sax & clarinet).
When they were in town, they would come by our house, etc., to talk and listen to the records and exchange stories of their travels around the world.
The Aristocrats Orchestra and its band members were all friends of our family, and each musician would share his musical knowledge with me. My earliest recollection was seeing and hearing the Aristocrats band at "The Club Morocco", located on Henry Street ("The Yard") in Roanoke, when I was maybe five years old, an indelible impression was made on me forever about music, and especially about this music we call jazz.
When I went to high school (1955-59), I met some like minded students; Marvin Poindexter, Gordon Moore, Jimmy Lewis who had jazz record collections and George Moore who had jazz LP's and a jazz photo scrap book; we started a listening club... I was in the high school marching & concert bands, playing Bb bass clarinet and alto sax in the jazz band.
My Dad wrote an arrangement of "Sophisticated Lady" (Duke Ellington) which featured me on alto sax, with the jazz band. Mr. Joseph E. Finley was our band director at Lucy Addison High School, and in charge of all bands in the secondary schools and Junior high school for the Colored Schools in the City of Roanoke, VA. This was during the period of legal segregation in the South (U.S.).
Mr. Finley had been my band director since fifth grade. During my time in high school, this is when I heard; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd came into view in a real big way, I was really into their music...
S.N: Which other artists and recordings inspired you?
B.M: That is a very, very long list indeed... The very first record that I can remember was; "Salt Peanuts" by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I will include a very short list here: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Art Blakey,
Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Thelonious Monk, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk,
Ahmad Jamal, Oliver Nelson, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Milt Jackson, Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Tony Williams; just about everyone from that great period; 1940 to 1980...
Recordings: "Clifford Brown & Max Roach at Basin Street, w/Sonny Rollins," Miles Davis;" 'Round Midnight, "Kind of Blue," "Milestones," "Miles Ahead",
"Porgy & Bess," "Sketches of Spain"(everything by Miles...) Ornette Coleman; "Change of the Century," "Free Jazz," "Ornette!" John Coltrane; "Blue Train," "Giant Steps," "My Favorite Things," "A Love Supreme," John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman," "Ascension," everything by Trane...
Charles Mingus; "Pithecanthropus Erectus," "Mingus AH UM," "Tijuana Moods," "Oh Yeah!" Oliver Nelson; "The Blues and the Abstract Truth," "Sound Pieces," Wayne Shorter; "Night Dreamer," "Speak No Evil," "Adams Apple," "Schizophrenia," "JuJu," Sonny Rollins; "Tenor Madness," "Way Out West," "Newk's Time," "A Night at the Village Vanguard," "The Bridge," "Our Man in Jazz," (just about everything... Art Blakey, everything w/the Jazz Messengers)...
Note: Please don't hold me to these musicians or recordings only, there are many, many more that I have learned from and listen to over the last fifty some odd years. This is only a small sampling of some...
S.N: At the age of 15, you worked at "Kaiser's Record Shop", which was situated across the street from the "Dumas Hotel" where the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, and Lionel Hampton stayed. This must have had a profound affect on you. Did you ever get to meet any of these great musicians?
B.M: Yes, I met most of those musicians, but not when they were staying at the Dumas Hotel. I met "Count" Basie at Tuskegee University, where I attended college in 1962, when his great band gave a concert there for the students. I met "Duke" Ellington in Washington, DC, during one of his many trip back to his hometown in the mid-1960s. I met Lionel Hampton at Howard University (Washington, DC) during a concert in the early 1980's.
I was invited to attend what would be Mr. Hampton's last birthday party in 2002, which was hosted by U.S. Congressman; John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan). I consider all of the musicians that I have had contact with or performed with over the years, and with Unity for thirty some years, to be family, and I have learned much from my associations with each one...
I met and conversed with; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Billy Eckstine, Ahmad Jamal, George Duvivier, Count Basie, Earl Fatha Hines, Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Charles Mingus, they all shared ideas and information with me.
I became friends with; Don Pullen, Jimmy Owens, Jackie McLean, Ornette Coleman, Mary Lou Williams, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Clifford Jordan, Philly Joe Jones, Joe McPhee, John Malachi, Kenny Barron, Ron Holloway, Andrew White, Wycliffe Gordon.
There was much to learn from each one and I have "soaked-up" as much as I could. The central theme from most of my musical associations is; that music is a business; learn the business just like you learn the basics of the music... But, know each area well!!!
S.N: Early on in your career, you played with Don Pullen in a band called, "The Junior Aristocrats", which was named after your father's band, "The Aristocrats". Were you continuing your father's musical legacy, or establishing your own sound?
B.M: I believe that I was continuing my Dad's legacy. I also believe that all the members of our little band were very much motivated by "The Aristocrats Band" and the Lucy Addison High School Marching and Concert Bands. The Band Director; Mr. Joseph Finley was quite a source of inspiration for young school students in our community in Roanoke, VA.
"The Junior Aristocrats" was started by me in 1954, when I was in the 7th grade in Junior High School. I played the Bb clarinet then and we had; trumpet, trombone, two clarinets, drums, and Don Pullen on piano. We played on the Booker T. Washington Junior High School assembly program a couple times, and got quite a positive reaction from both students and faculty members.
They cheered for us Big Time!!! We felt very invigorated by the cheers from our teachers and fellow students. Three of the members of that band became professional musicians; Don Pullen, Jimmy Lewis (drums), and me. Much later on, the three of us went on to establish our own sound, albeit individually and not as members of the same group.
Don Pullen actually was going to be the original pianist with Unity. He did rehearse with the band, but joined Charles Mingus' band before we (Unity) had any musical engagements (gigs). The rest as they say is history...
S.N: There was a very significant spiritual revolution that occurred in the 1960s. People were tapping into this new level and awareness of consciousness, which was being expressed through various art forms and movements. Your music expressed this in a very passionate way.
B.M: Thank you for the compliment. We were a product of that time, the 1960s. We lived and survived the 60s, and it is reflected in our music. I say survived, because many did not make it through that decade for various reasons; poverty, civil protests, War, drugs, you name it...
It is all there in the music of that time, even the beauty that manages to shine through because of God's Grace; "Transcendental Lullaby," "Ether," "Kitty Bey," "Sun Shower," "Like A Galaxy of Stars," "Reunion," "Panamanian Aire." It's all part of the; "Eyewitness News Bluze", & "ERAA."
S.N: This is what makes that time period so special, as there was nothing contrived about that kind of jazz, for it was Black Culture, and real life being expressed through the music in such a powerful and liberating way.
In 1969 you collaborated with Gerald Wise to record the album "Unity", which was released in 1972. For me, two of the most compelling jazz albums from the countless great jazz recordings of the 1960s (and you have already mentioned many of my favourites) were Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite", and your "Unity".
The 1950s/60s were extremely challenging times for Black people, and through connecting to the "spirituals", some very dynamic and inspiring music was produced, such as "Unity". "JWM + 53" is outstanding, and the "Black Awareness" is a passionate journey through many deep and colourful layers of expression. How did the idea for this project develop?
B.M: We came together in the studio in March 1969, in Washington, DC, to put some of our musical ideas down on tape. The scene in the studio was very inspirational for me. We had two basses, three drummers, a percussionist, vibes, four saxophonists, and two trumpets. This was a very unusual instrumentation for that time, for Jerry and me. The "Unity" recording session took place very spontaneously in 1969. I had known Gerald Wise since early 1965 when he was discharged from the U.S. Army.
Most of the other musicians on the "Unity" album, Jerry and I had played with in jam sessions, or in performances. We shared a common musical philosophy that I believe was the by-product of our collective musical, and life's experiences. I wrote "JWM + 53" which was dedicated to my Dad, who turned 53 years of age in 1969. I painted a word picture for the other musicians about my Dad, and the effect that he had on me as a man and a musician.
The rest is where they took it to. We floated into that piece and what you hear is their collective improvisations on "JWM + 53." We set a direction for each song, but let each song evolve from the spur of the moment, or our collective stream of consciousness. "Black Awareness," speaks for itself, there is not much explanation needed here. The musicians in the studio that day understood that title and went about giving the song musical life.
The song was written by one of the other musicians present that day, he was to depart this life shortly after the recording, far too soon. The Jazz Music Scene in Washington, DC, when I arrived in the late spring of 1964 to stay for a while, was very rich from the stand point of the Live music venues that existed then: Bohemian Caverns, Abart's, The Show Boat, the Howard Theater, etc.
These venues presented nationally known Jazz talent, and the local scene was also very rich with musicians, who lived in the DC area. During that era (1964-68) there was a club called "The Crows Toe" in downtown DC (10th & K Sts., NW), which had open jam sessions from midnight to 5:00 A.M., on Friday & Saturdays.
These sessions brought together some of the best musicians in town from the military service bands, the various local college music programs, and the local musicians. I met and played with some outstanding musicians during that time. One of those was trumpeter Gerald Wise, who had just gotten out of the Army, he and I became good friends, another was tenor saxophonist Vins Johnson who was in the First U.S. Army Band.
Some of the local musicians; pianists John Malachi, Laurence Wheatley, Rubin Brown; bassist Fred Williams, Steve Novasel; saxophonist Andrew White, Buck Hill, Maurice Robinson, guitarist Nathan Page, Charles Abels; drummers Eric Gravatt, Bernard Sweetney, Mel Hardy, the legendary vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn. Gerald Wise and I use to travel the 40 miles north, up to Baltimore and sit-in on the jam sessions there, the Baltimore's jazz scene was also very rich during this time.
"The Left Bank Jazz Society" presented every Sunday afternoon from 5:00 PM until 9:00 PM, some of the cream of the crop of National Jazz talents; Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Stan Kenton, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan,etc., etc. Some of the local musicians I met during our trips to Baltimore; saxophonists, Whit Williams, Gary Bartz, Mickey & Shirley Fields; pianist Rasheed Abdul Yahya (Donald Criss); and vocalists Posha.
In 1967 Gerald Wise and I started a group with Vins Johnson and we brought in drummer Jimmy Lewis and bassist Lenny Martin from Roanoke to round-out the group. One of our first jobs was for the Jazz Impresario & Poet Gaston Neal, at his "New School" on 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. He asked me what name for the group he should he put on the marquee to advertise the band.
We had not given any thought to a name for the band, just what music we were going to play, and that is what I told him. He said let's call your band "The Unit Five" and so that was the name for the next year or so... We were hot; really burning with a lot of youthful energy and excitement, the young jazz fans dug us right away.
The fact that we were a piano-less band made us really different. Also, bassist Lenny Martin had spent time in Chicago after his time in the U.S. Army Special Services Bands; he had been around with some top musicians, met Muhal Richard Abrams, Eric Dolphy, Jack Dejohnette. Lenny was instrumental in introducing Don Pullen> to Muhal, and they were all heavily into Ornette Coleman at that time. Don Pullen credits Muhal as an early influence.
This band; Unit Five, morphed over the next couple of years and changed personnel, adding Eric Gravatt on drums, Fred Williams on bass, now we were a piano-less quartet. Our repertoire now included "Una Muy Bonita," and "Lonely Woman" by Ornette Coleman; "Fire Waltz" by Mal Waldron, and "245" by Eric Dolphy, just to name a few songs that we performed...
I met drummer Eric Gravatt (original "Weather Report" drummer), who is from Philadelphia, PA, and he was attending Howard University in DC, then. In the fall of 1968 the Left Bank Jazz Society of Washington was presenting the Jackie McLean Group at one of their Sunday afternoon concerts being held at "The Show Boat Club," located at 18th & Columbia Road, NW.
We were all there waiting to hear and see Jackie, when the president of the jazz society came on stage and said that Jackie was not going to be coming because of car trouble somewhere on the NJ turnpike. However, Woody Shaw, Jackie's trumpet player was here and willing to carry-on if they could put together a band.
I made a mad dash for my horn which was at home about a twenty minute drive each way from the club. When I returned to the club; Buck Hill, Fred Williams, Eric Gravatt and Woody were about to begin to play, I joined them on stage after the first tune. My playing was under the sway of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette, so Woody, Eric and Fred heard me and we had a very interesting and exciting time and the people were getting into the "New Thing" so the excitement really captured them.
Jackie McLean and I became very close friends, Unity performed for Jackie, who was head of the Jazz Music program at Hartt School of Music, now called; the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. (University of Hartford), in Hartford, Connecticut (1970-2006).
S.N: In 1972 you founded the group "Unity" with Gerald Wise, and Vincent McEwan. "Unity" had exceptional musicians that created their own unique sound. What was the inspiration behind putting this kind of a band together?
B.M: The beginning; October, 1972, New York City, Byron Morris, Gerald Wise, and Vincent McEwan, formed a musical organization for the purpose of exploring various musical options. The overall concept was to create a superior musical environment where members of the organization could be musically and economically productive.
The basic concepts were as follows: to create a family style musical aggregation where our collective and individual musical knowledge and talent could be honed, to provide a stable musical climate where our unique musical offerings could be performed, to create original musical compositions where the human voice could be incorporated with various combinations of brass, reeds, strings and percussion instruments, to provide a recorded legacy for wide public dissemination, and to provide a base for economic empowerment along with philosophical and spiritual enrichment.
The name "Unity" was chosen to represent our collective concept for the musical family organization. The following musicians were chosen to join Byron Morris, Vincent McEwan, and Gerald Wise to form the first Unity family: Mike Kull-piano, Frank Clayton-bass, Jay Clayton-vocals, and Abdushahid-drums.
These musicians along with Vincent McEwan on trumpet, Byron Morris on Saxes, and special guest Jimmy Owens on trumpet & flugelhorn performed on the group's first engagement January 15, 1973, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The event was to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin L. King.
S.N: Your first album with "Unity" was "Blow Thru Your Mind", which you released on your own EPI label. This is one of the most definitive recordings of its era. You changed your musical direction here in comparison to what you had recorded previously on the "Unity" album. The "Reunion" has a nice uplifting vibe about it, and the "Transcendental Lullaby" is an exquisite composition where Jay Clayton sings like an angel.
B.M: During 1973, the group went through various growth cycles, culminating in a recording session in December 1973, at the Minot Sound Studios in White Plains, NY. This session produced the group's first album "Blow Thru Your Mind". The album was released in May, l974, featured the compositions of Gerald Wise, Vincent McEwan, Lenny Martin and Byron Morris. Featured on this album are: Vincent McEwan - trumpet & flugelhorn; Jay Clayton - vocals/voice; Byron Morris - alto & soprano Saxes; Mike Kull - piano; Milton Suggs - string bass & electric bass; Sadiq Abdushahid - drums; Tony Waters - congas & percussion.
S.N: There is something about the hauntingly beautiful "Ether" that touches me in a very profound way, for you really capture the essence and mysteriousness of the "ether" in this composition. Your solo is very moving on this track. I also love how Jay Clayton calls out to the "Ether", and she produces a nice subtle quote of John Coltrane's "Naima" too.
B.M: This song was written by Vincent McEwan, one of the many he composed and arranged for Unity to perform and record. I wrote the words/poem for the music and Jay did a brilliant job on the recording from the album; "Blow Thru Your Mind," and also on the CD; "Vibrations In Time." Vince first proposed this melody in a swingin' mode.
He and I rehearsed the melody together with just the alto sax and trumpet before we came up with how the song evolved to what was recorded. Each time "Ether" is performed it sounds a little different because of the individual musician's interpretation of "Ether." Milton Suggs, our bassist on the recording shows his classical background, putting his Arco & pizzicato technique to good use. He played with the youth symphony in Chicago, Illinois, when he was child coming up.
All of the musicians lent their imaginations to this piece. Mike Kull's airy and suspended touch on the piano, Abdushahid & Tony Waters' time suspension and colorations on the multiple percussions, this song and "Kitty Bey" are very vivid examples of what we (Vince, Gerald & me) were looking for in the type of musicians we wanted for the group Unity, when we began our search in 1972. ...and so we segue to "Kitty Bey," same musicians, same excellent and creative results...
S.N: Yes, and then there's the "KITTY BEY"... this is without a doubt one of the heaviest and most dynamic tracks (according to some it is THE 'heaviest' and most dynamic track) that has ever been played in a jazz room. First, I would like to know who "Kitty Bey" is, for she must have quite a lady to have a track like that written after her.
B.M: The musical composition "Kitty Bey," was written and arranged for the band Unity by trumpeter/composer Gerald L. Wise in 1973. The song was dedicated to a young Lady named Kitty Bey, who lived in New York City during the 1970's. She was a staunch supporter of the band Unity, and the new musical directions that the band was taking in those years.
Everywhere the band would perform in New York City, Kitty Bey would be there to cheer us on. She had a certain presence and a rhythm in her speech and walk, which inspired Gerald Wise to write the musical composition named for her. The entire band Unity was inspired by Ms. Kitty Bey, may she have Peace & Prosperity wherever she may be...
S.N: This is an amazing track which never lets up on its intensity, so you can imagine how challenging it is to dance to for those who are prepared to "go all the way" with it. What also makes the "Kitty Bey" so striking is its arrangement, for you know what time it is on the dance floor when that bassline comes in followed by the piano groove.
All the solos are very strong, and what struck me the first time I heard it was when Jay Clayton came in quite unexpectedly with her exciting vocal scat, and how relentless the drums/percussion break is. It must have been quite a session making this track. Was the "Kitty Bey" one of those 'one take wonders?
B.M: Unity started performing "Kitty Bey" in January 1973; each time we played the song individual band members would add their own ideas of how they viewed Kitty Bey. Finally, when we recorded the song in late 1973, after a year of working on how the song should sound a certain extraordinary creative power struck our performance during the recording session.
Amazingly the song was done in only one take. "Kitty Bey," the song, and Unity's original 1974 recorded version of the song, has been Unity's most enduring musical Legacy to date. The song and Unity's original version has been re-released on four separate occasions in the United Kingdom (UK), twice in the United States (USA), and twice in Japan with the original version, and once with a new recorded version by a Japanese musical group using their own interpretation.
This then is the song "Kitty Bey" and it's musical history over the past thirty- six (36) years to date; October 2009.
Here is a sample of one review done in 2004 concerning the song "Kitty Bey:"
"Unity" was formed with similar values, aims and objectives to many other spiritually conscious groups at the time, as the name suggests. Uniquely, it managed to match the musical and spiritual searching of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Ornette Coleman alongside an equally experimental New York art-music dimension that was brought into the group by vocalist Jay Clayton, who had performed with, amongst many others, Steve Reich.
With bassist Milton Suggs having played in Sun Ra's Arkestra, and Byron Morris having studied with Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, it is possible to see the musical path that makes up "Kitty Bey", twelve minutes of musical intensity, which sounds like nothing else ever recorded."
S.N: You released the album "Vibrations, Themes, & Serenades" with "Unity" in 1978. We were blessed with many dance tracks on this album, such as "Panamanian Aire", "Eraa", "Like a Galaxy of Stars", and "Sun Shower". Janice Jarrett wrote some beautiful lyrics to the Kenny Barron composition, "Sun Shower", which is complimented by your strong arrangement of the tune.
B.M: Thank you once again for all of your compliments, they are received with all due humility. The record label; EPI Records (now defunct), the band, and I, all believed that we made a very strong musical statement on this album, which by the way was the last recording to date that we made with Jay Clayton. I first met Kenny Barron in the mid-1960s when he was the pianist with Dizzy Gillespie; also later on he was in Freddie Hubbard's band.
When we had a chance to record "Sun Shower" we were very excited when Kenny gave his permission to use his composition. All the other compositions are also very special to us; "ERAA" was named for my two sons; Eric & Aaron who were very young, moving fast like very young boys do, and getting into mischief around the house.
This song captures them perfectly from that time in the early 1970s when they were very young. Oh! by the way when we were seeking permission to record Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (Mingus' tribute to Lester "Prez" Young), we were given a phone number to the publisher. I placed the call and Charles Mingus answered the phone himself! Wow! I was shocked! He told me to send him a copy of the record when we had copies available and he wished us all the very best with our new record album... The album was released a couple of weeks before Charles Mingus passed in January 1979...
S.N: Rahsaan Roland Kirk was an extremely gifted musician, who influenced you in a very profound way. Your "Theme for Rahsaan", that features you on the flute, was recorded as a tribute to him after his passing. What was the most valuable thing about your musical relationship with Rahsaan?
B.M: Fall, 1976 the Bird's Nest night club, Silver Spring, Maryland. Rahsaan after the "stroke" playing "Giant Steps" with one hand! Yes, you heard me, one hand! This was too much! I was seated next to the front of the stage which was about 18 inches high, after that unbelievable performance on "Giant Steps" I jumped up and grabbed Rahsaan around the waist and hugged him.
Michael Hill his singer/bodyguard came out and grabbed me! The three of us were locked in an embrace for a few moments (Bright Moments!). Rahsaan asked me; "who are you?" I said: Byron Morris>. Rahsaan told Michael Hill to release me. Rahsaan asked me to accompany him back to the dressing room.
Once in the dressing room, Rahsaan told me that he had purchased the record album; "Blow Thru Your Mind" by Unity, earlier that same day. Rahsaan said that he had been most impressed with the musical direction of Unity, and in particular my approach and sound on the saxophone.
I was totally in shock by all that I had heard in his playing, and now was hearing, as personal compliments directed at me, coming from this very great musician. Rahsaan, his wife Dorthaan, his daughters, and I became very good friends, family even. Rahsaan visited my home and met my wife, sons, my grandmother and my father. Rahsaan was especially taken with my grandmother's cooking.
It was a real Bright Moment for him. He and I would talk on the phone for what seemed like hours about the music, its history, and the musicians that were at the heart of the music's innovation. He was a total collector of the music, and had all the albums by all the greats...
He knew the history and all the musical styles. Rahsaan is responsible for me learning the flute and adding it to my performances along with the alto & soprano saxophones. I wrote and recorded "Theme for Rahsaan" in his memory.
S.N: That is a very moving story about Rahsaan, and I appreciate you sharing it with me. In 1981, you recorded the album, "Honey, I Love", which was co-produced by the poet and author Eloise Greenfield. This is a beautiful album based on Greenfield's African-American children's poems, where she recites poetry to your music.
She does a great job of acknowledging jazz legends such as, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday, to name a few. There is another good version of "Sun Shower" on this album.
My 8 year old daughter Thiyana loves jazz (she is always imitating Jay Clayton's voice), and this album is ideal for children.
B.M: In the spring of 1981 the family of Unity returned to the recording studio to provide the musical sustenance for collaboration with the Author and Poet Eloise Greenfield. This collaboration produced the album; "Honey, I Love." This record featured the compositions of Byron Morris, Eloise Greenfield, Vincent McEwan, Cedric Lawson, Don Pate and Kenny Barron.
The album was released in the spring of 1982. The members of Unity featured on this album are: Byron Morris - alto, tenor saxes & flute; Vincent McEwan - trumpet, flugelhorn & kalimba; Cedric Lawson - piano; Don Pate - string bass; Kevin Parham - electric bass; David Fuller - drums; Grayling "GW" Wallace - drums; Stanley Benders - percussion.
The story behind this recording session, etc. is very interesting because of the subject matter; children & jazz music. The musicians, the children and I had a really great experience creating the music for the poems by Eloise Greenfield from the book "Honey, I Love."
S.N: Jay Clayton is one of the most innovative and dynamic jazz vocalists I have ever heard. Her voice has such clarity and depth within it, and her tone is remarkable. Personally, I feel that she deserves more recognition for what she has established vocally. Her contribution to the sound of "Unity" is very special.
B.M: I met Jay in 1972 through her former husband Frank Clayton, one of the original bassist with Unity. During this period, I lived about an hour and twenty minutes outside of New York City, and performed with a couple other bands doing more commercial music, and one group with multi instrumentalist Joe McPhee, doing more creative music.
This was prior to Vince McEwan, Gerald Wise and me forming the group Unity.
During our discussions, we were talking about finding a singer who could use the voice as an instrument, and also sing words, etc. Sometimes early in 1972, Frank Clayton and I played a gig at a College in upstate New York with Joe McPhee's band.
He and I rode to the gig together in my van. We talked about the new band that Vince, Gerald and I were forming and I asked him if he would be interested. He was, and he offered his loft in Soho section of New York City, as a place where we could rehearse.
During the first rehearsal in October 1972, we had Don Pullen on piano, along with Frank, Vince, a drummer and me. I had written an arrangement for the song "Reunion" which included a vamp section where the voice would ad lib over the vamp.
I told the musicians that when we found a singer that could do the ad lib part, we would be able to get the full effect of how the song would sound. Frank said his wife Jay is a singer let her try the song... As they say, the rest his history, Jay "nailed it," and off we went together for the next seven years, what a musical ride!!
Jay called me a couple of weeks ago (October 2009) to suggest that Unity needed to have a reunion. Standby, we will be creating again soon...
S.N: Jay contacted you a couple weeks ago suggesting a reunion... that was the time we were working out this interview, don't you just love those syncronicities!! You put together a wonderful collection of original "Unity" songs on the album, "Vibrations in Time", which was released on your label By-Mor Music.
B.M: The music came from the two album releases; "Blow Thru Your Mind" (1974) and "Vibrations, Themes & Serenades" (1979). "Vibrations In Time" (1994) is a compilation of the two albums. It also represented the original Unity band founded in 1972, and the first time that its music would be available on compact disc.
S.N: You recorded the album, "LIVE! At the East Coast Jazz Festival", with a new line-up of "Unity". You blessed us with a new version of "Panamanian Aire", as well as good renditions of "Monk's Mood", and "Seven Steps to Heaven".
B.M: Don't forget "Sometimes Braid" which we performed on this album along with "When Lights Are Low," "Tranquil Moods," and "All Blues." During this performance we were looking back to some of our Musician Icons; Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis when we performed at The East Coast Jazz Festival (Washington, DC area) in 1996.
We are fortunate that this performance was recorded, and captured the much underrated pianist, teacher, composer & arranger, and band leader; Maria Rodriguez, who passed from this life a year or so after this performance with Unity.
S.N: Yes, I named just a few tracks, but "LIVE! At the East Coast Jazz Festival" is a complete album. Unity's next release was "Y2K" in 2003 featuring one of my favourite Latin/jazz pianists, the late Hilton Ruiz. This is a strong recording with a great cover of Bobby Watson's, "Wheel within a Wheel". Bobby Watson himself stated how much he liked your version. This album really swings.
B.M: Again Thank You! Hilton Ruiz joined Unity in 1998, when he performed with us at the Cape May New Jersey Jazz Festival, where Unity performed from 1997 through 2001. I had known Hilton since the 1970s, when a fellow musician and former member of Unity, Hakim Jami the bassist/tuba player introduced me to Hilton. Hilton was also a member of the last band that Rahsaan Roland Kirk led. So my Roots with Hilton were very deep indeed.
Hilton and I were like brothers, he made creating music on the band stand a real joy and a great adventure. I would say that "Wheel within a Wheel" was the real high point of that performance recorded live at Blues Alley in Washington, DC, in the year 2000, so the name; "Y2K."
The other musicians; Eddie Allen (trumpet/flugelhorn), Pepe Gonzalez (bass), Harold Summey (drums), Gerald Pennington (trombone), and Imani (vocals & percussions) helped to create a very swingin' musical environment for the audience that evening, and you can tell by how they reacted most positively to our every musical effort on this night in November 2000.
As I said before; in 1998 Hilton Ruiz came into the family of Unity and stayed until his death in 2006. Hilton was a musical joy on the bandstand, a true professional, and we had a close and respectful friendship, actually we were more like brothers.
Hilton was a very positive force in our musical life and we miss him very much "gracias mi hermano, perder muy mucho" Hilton!!! Hilton had a lot of passion for the music, and when you were on the bandstand with him you felt imbued with that same passion, and it tended to lift you right up with him.
S.N: You are currently working as a Jazz Educator, and are referred to as an expert in that field, which is not surprising considering your musical gift and experience. You received fellowships for "The National Endowment for the Arts" in 1973, 1978, and 1983, and conduct workshops at High Schools and Universities, for your expertise is very much in demand.
What do these workshops consist of, and what kind of advice would you give to young Jazz Musicians that are just starting out?
B.M: The seminars that I have conducted at the University of Maryland (Nyumburu Cultural Center, College Park, Maryland); starting in 1980 thru 1988, and again from ;2005 - 2009, center onthe history of Jazz music in its various forms.
I breakdown Jazz history and its various innovators and purveyors into time segments, e.g., 1900-1920 (Early Jazz Rag Time, New Orleans influence), 1920-1940 (the jazz Age, Swing, the Big Band era, Chicago, New York, Kansas City styles, etc.), 1940-1970 (smaller groups, Bebop, Jump Jazz, Cool Jazz, Free Jazz, Hard Bop, Funk & Soul, Free Bop), 1970-2000 (Fusion, Smooth Jazz, Classic Jazz, Traditional Jazz, Jazz-Rock.)
I also discuss the key innovators of the music; Scott Joplin, Joe "King" Oliver, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Edward "Duke" Ellington, Benny Goodman, William "Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald Charles "Bird" Parker, John "Dizzy" Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, William "Billy" Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, etc., etc., etc.
I use live musicians to demonstrate the sound and style of music. I also use recordings (CDs, tapes, DVDs, VHS formats, etc.) to show some of the Icons of Jazz music. I encourage all to listen to this music that is called Jazz, in its many forms for over 100 years now, Listen! Listen!! Listen!!!
Thanks to James Otis Williams, Director of NCC from my earlier period (1980-1988), and Dr. Ronald Zeigler, Director of NCC for the present period (2005-2009).
To young musicians; listen, learn the music and the business, practice your craft, apprentice with a master musician to glean the knowledge a master musician/performer has; that is how the music we call Jazz has always progressed and moved forward. It is a time honored tradition in all of Music and Art...
S.N: Unity seems to be on a continuous journey and evolution. What musical plans are you currently working on for the group?
B.M: Seymour, Unity's plans for future musical endeavours are still being formed as I respond to your questions for this most wonderful interview. I would also say that this opportunity comes at, I believe, a fortuitous time in the history of the musical group; Byron Morris and Unity.
Again I would like to thank you for searching us out, and providing us with this opportunity to share a little of our history. Standby for more creative music to come... ...and keep listening and Dancing my Good Friend!!
S.N: Thank you so much for this interview Byron. You have tapped into the Source, and communicated this connection to us through your music in such a sincere and profound way, and for this I am extremely grateful.
The Original Unity Band, 1973 at Vassar College Pok, New York
Much gratitude to you Dear Friend!!
Photo credit: Robert Taylor
Unity during a live recording at Blues Alley,
Washington, DC, for the album; "Y2K", 2000
Photo credit: Michael Wilderman
Byron Morris, Vincent McEwan, & Jay Clayton, 1975
Photo credit: Betty Morris
Rahsaan Roland Kirk & Byron Morris, 1977
Photo credit: Betty Morris
Read the 'New' interview (2011) with Byron Morris
@ The Bottom End (click here)
Copyright 2009 © Seymour Nurse